By Sharon Naylor

November 20, 2009 6 min read

Volunteering provides an opportunity for seniors to connect with their communities, make new friends and enjoy the sense of "giving back," of making a difference in the lives of children and causes they strongly believe in. Having a strong social network and a sense of purpose has been proved to elevate feel-good hormones, which contributes to heart health and staving off loneliness and depression. With the world in flux and perhaps with children and grandchildren living far away, many seniors are joining the ranks of volunteers -- and making the world a better place for it.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 61 million people now devote their time to volunteering. About 28 percent of these volunteers are between 55 and 64, and 23.5 percent of them are 65 or older.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' report for 2008 says 46.7 percent of older volunteers are more likely to select religious-based organizations, and interests seem to divide by gender. Men gravitate toward general labor (12.6 percent), coaching or refereeing sports teams (10.3 percent) and professional services (10.1 percent). Women gravitate toward fundraising (12.8 percent), tutoring or teaching (12 percent) and collecting, preparing and delivering food to the needy (10.7 percent).

Volunteers are needed greatly in all charitable organizations. That's because today's tough economy makes fundraising a challenge, and many educational programs have been cut by schools and community groups. Our senior citizen volunteers literally save the day when they step in to contribute their time, knowledge, encouragement and the many skills and strategies they have learned throughout their careers and home lives.

If you'd love to volunteer but don't know where to start, the great news is that many reputable organizations exist to help guide you to the perfect fit for your interests and available time. Lester Strong, spokesman for Experience Corps, says his organization recruits adults who are 55 or older to help teach children in kindergarten through third grade how to read. "The kids who are struggling are a year to two years behind the reading levels they should be at, which is a lot for a third-grader," Strong says. "Experience Corps is in 22 cities, serving 20,000 children through our 2,000 volunteers, and we were just named one of the most effective literacy groups out there."

The Experience Corps example brings up an important issue: Do you have time for the training required to volunteer in your chosen organization? Experience Corps requires a rigorous 20-hour training schedule so that volunteers can learn the five different components of reading, including phonics and comprehension. Habitat for Humanity, in which volunteers raise funds and help to build homes for needy families, also requires attendance at training classes. This information is not intended to discourage you from volunteering; it is an important key to your volunteering plans. You must assess how big a time commitment you realistically can make.

VolunteerMatch's Web site shows you local charities, schools and other organizations that need volunteers for both ongoing positions and so-called "one-shot" volunteering opportunities, such as handing out water bottles during fundraising marathons and triathlons. Hospitals and schools often invite volunteers for one evening's worth of stuffing envelopes for their upcoming fundraisers or special events. Check with your local library, YMCA, hospitals, schools, churches, museums, animal shelters and scouting organizations to see whether what you can offer matches their needs.

Other volunteering opportunity Web sites to check include Serve.gov and Idealist.org. AmeriCorps' Web site (http://www.AmeriCorps.gov) is also helpful. For information about the AARP's Create The Good program, go to http://www.CreateTheGood.org. The Points of Light Foundation also leads you to volunteer opportunities, as will your chosen political party's official Web site.

As an important warning, though, you must be aware that not every charity is legitimate. It's a bane of our society that some groups exist to benefit themselves, and you may be displeased by some top-name charities' policies of donating far less than 100 percent of donations collected to the actual causes. Some groups keep percentages to cover their administration costs. To research any charity or group you have in mind, go to http://www.give.org.

Seniors who volunteer say they feel revived and rejuvenated, thrilled to escape the routines they previously had held, and proud of themselves for learning new skills. And when a particular illness claims the life of a spouse, a sibling or a parent, seniors shake off that helpless feeling by vowing to fight back against that illness in any way possible. Joanne Blahitka, 66, a cancer survivor whose husband recently passed away from multiple myeloma, counts herself as blessed to have benefited from the research and support of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "So," she says, "I volunteer by distributing fundraising materials, and I also support my son and my niece in their charity marathons. The disease didn't defeat me, but I can help to defeat it."

When the child you're tutoring reaches his or her proper reading level and loves learning -- thanks to your time, attention and care -- you haven't just helped one person; you've helped everyone that child will come in contact with throughout his or her life, allowing that child to grow up to achieve great things. Not a bad use of your time.

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